Alison Teal: Sheffield Council's prison threats have failed to halt tree campaign
But despite the intimidation faced by tree campaigners like myself in an attempt to halt our efforts, Sheffield Council can be sure that the fight to retain healthy mature street trees will continue into 2018 and for as long as the authority and its contractor Amey threaten to destroy them.
The dispute between the council and thousands of tree campaigners in the city centres around the way tree-felling is being conducted as part of so-called highways improvement work, which is being delivered through a 25-year PFI £2.2bn contract with Amey.
The council says only dead, dying, diseased or dangerous trees are being removed and then replaced with saplings, but campaigners quite simply do not accept many of the trees that are being chopped down have to be felled. Proving exactly why this is happening is made substantially more difficult by the secretive nature of the council’s contract with Amey. However, we believe that Amey are felling healthy trees simply to make it easier for machinery to create smooth level pavements and reduce ongoing maintenance costs.
In the meantime, campaigners have been doing all they can to peacefully prevent the removal of trees. I was arrested in February under anti-trade union legislation for trying to protect a tree but the case was dropped because of a lack of evidence. However, this was far from the end of the matter.
As a Green Party councillor inspired to stand for election because of this issue, I have been shocked at my treatment by the Labour-led council.
In April, I was expelled by the Mayor from a full council meeting for stating the councillor in charge of the highway work had ‘misled’ the public. All opposition councillors walked out in protest at my treatment.
In August, Sheffield Council successfully won a High Court injunction against myself, two other campaigners and ‘persons unknown’ designed to prevent direct action protests against tree removals in which campaigners would stand directly under threatened trees to prevent felling crews carrying out their work.
I continued to be involved in protests but did not breach the injunction preventing me from stepping inside safety zones established around trees due to be removed. However, Sheffield Council took me to court in October claiming that I had breached the injunction and was therefore in contempt of court. The letter ordering me to attend court stated simply and frighteningly, “the council will be seeking your committal to prison”.
But when the case was eventually heard, the council’s own QC began the proceedings by asking that the judge disregard half of their ‘evidence’ against me at the outset, and their remaining evidence quickly proved so unconvincing that the judge dismissed the case against me without bothering to hear my account of the events.
Fellow Green councillors have called for a council inquiry into their decision to request a court committed me, an opposition councillor, to prison.
This has not happened. The Labour cabinet instead insist that the prosecution was a decision of council officers and there was no political motivation involved.
But what does the Labour cabinet have to say about two senior officers wasting tens of thousands of public money? Nothing. Has anyone from the Labour group or executive offered an apology to me? No.
Rather, they have turned their attention to what can be done using internal processes such as the Standards Committee, which examines breaches of the Code of Conduct for councillors. This is just not good enough.
There will be some inside Sheffield Council who may be disappointed that I am still at liberty to continue my peaceful protest against their ecologically disastrous and financially wasteful partnership with Amey, a company which several councils have or wish to extricate themselves from, including Cumbria, Birmingham and Liverpool.
But I remain utterly determined to continue. The environmental, health, financial and aesthetic reasons for retaining mature trees have been repeated ad nauseam yet the council executive continue their obstinate dismissal of expert advice and both rational and heartfelt pleas by residents.
I believe the time has come for new leadership of Sheffield Council which actually listens to the city’s residents. With local elections on the horizon, I certainly hope the council leadership’s approach to the issue will come back to bite them at the ballot box.
Alison Teal is a Green Party councillor in Sheffield.